At some point over the last few days, I was making this or that observation about the political dynamics of the country at the moment and I realized I had suddenly started assuming Clinton will definitely beat Trump. That was a surprise. I have figured all along she would ultimately win, but I’ve been careful not to get ahead of myself, and have often publicly and privately warned colleagues and readers not to count Trump out, even when he was trailing Clinton in the polls by sizable margins.
But now, partly because of the impact of the recently released Access Hollywood video and the subsequent sexual-assault allegations against Trump, the trajectory of the race for the Republican nominee is terrible at exactly the moment he is running out of time to do much about it. And so it’s probably time to ask quite soberly: Is the presidential election over?
At FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten approaches this question from the point of view of historical precedent. Has anyone (at least in the modern era when polls were available) come from as far behind as Trump is at present to win? The answer is no. Going back to 1952, no one has trailed at this point in the cycle by the 6 points and change by which Trump currently trails Clinton and gone on to win. There are three elections with large late shifts (or perhaps polling errors, if you prefer to look at it that way), but (a) none of them reversed the outcome and (b) none of them especially resembled 2016. To be specific, in 1992, Bill Clinton lost half of his lead over Poppy Bush down the stretch, but still won in a walk; really sure winners often lose late votes to complacency, boredom, or (as definitely occurred in 1992) third-party candidates. In 1980, Reagan had a late surge against Carter, but that involved a challenger who had yet (at this point) to post his impressive performance in that year’s one debate, beating an incumbent at a time when economic conditions in the country were by anyone’s judgment terrible and America was suffering a high-profile international humiliation at the hands of Iran. Trump may claim the U.S. is in similar straits now, but the economic indicators and public perceptions say otherwise.
As Enten notes, 1968 is the closest example we have of the kind of comeback Trump needs:
[T]he most encouraging precedent for Trump is probably 1968. In that year, Democrat Hubert Humphrey was down by 5 percentage points and ended up losing by 1 point. Humphrey consolidated a divided Democratic base — just as Trump needs to do now with Republicans. Humphrey was also likely aided by a major October surprise — the halting of bombing in Vietnam by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. That’s not a bad template for Trump — it would be difficult and he would need some outside help, but you can imagine it happening. Still, Trump is losing by a wider margin than Humphrey was, and the October surprises so far in 2016 seem to be working against Trump rather than in his favor.
That’s the big picture. How about the little picture? There’s always been a nontrivial chance Trump could win the electoral vote without ever catching Clinton in the national popular vote. How’s he looking there?
The signs are not great for Republicans (at least those who want to see Trump win). The states that were earlier putting Trump within shouting distance of 270 electoral votes seem to be turning away from him. The first post-Trump video survey from Ohio (from Baldwin Wallace) had Clinton up by 9 points among likely voters; a more recent poll from Marist showed Trump back up by 1, but in a state he really must win, Clinton’s now pulled ahead in the polling averages. Even before the tape emerged, Clinton was beginning to build leads in the key swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. In Pennsylvania, the keystone to one Trump path to the presidency, Clinton’s leading by more than her national average. If that state is truly gone for Trump, he cannot lose much anywhere else in the states (Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada) where he once led narrowly before his sexual behavior became central to the campaign. And there are reports that internal GOP polls taken after the video hit show big problems for Trump in Georgia. If that state, which no Democrat has won since 1992, is even close, Trump’s not going to win the states he must have.
Yes, the dynamics could turn around to some extent; you can find at least one new national poll (albeit one from the GOP-leaning Rasmussen) showing Trump bouncing back. But unlike some of the late-surge candidates in the past, Trump does not have the kind of resources normally associated with playing catch-up against a candidate like Clinton. The base-mobilization strategy he signaled he was pursuing with his abrasive comments during and after the second debate could be neutralized to some extent by the effect it will have in helping Clinton mobilize her base. He doesn’t have the infrastructure for a quieter and more targeted get-out-the-vote operation, and it’s far too late to acquire one. He’s also at a serious disadvantage in early voter operations, and early voting will soon on a daily basis reduce the voters available to sustain a comeback — in effect increasing Clinton’s lead by allowing her to “bank” votes. Team Trump is also trailing Team Clinton in paid ad spending. And beyond all that, there’s the fight Trump has engaged in against the congressional Republicans who are clearly inviting voters to split tickets. Maybe that will not hurt him as badly as some observers assume, but it’s unlikely to give him a boost, either.
It’s really hard to find any current indicator that looks good for Donald Trump, truth be told. It’s entirely possible his latest travails have simply and finally put a ceiling on his vote that no degree of wild base-energizing rhetoric can overcome. So about the best reason I can find to hold off declaring him dead in the water is the vague and almost superstitious feeling that it’s been an unpredictable cycle. If new polling data coming out over the next few days shows convincing signs of even deeper national and battleground-state damage from the various sexual allegations and from intra-GOP infighting, it will be time to say this race is over.